I recently noticed that the German name for the Mount of Olives is Ölberg. I would give "Oil Mountain" as a gloss for this. This perturbs me; the meaning appears different from that of the English. (As far as I can tell, the meaning of both the French and Chinese equivalents is Mount of Olives and not something like Mount of Oil. I am not sure about other languages.) Moreover, it would appear that Ölberg also does not quite correspond to the Hebrew and Arabic names for the area (which German Wikipedia translates as Olivenberg). I would think that translations of names in European languages for Biblical places would be reasonably similar, since they should all stem from Greek or Hebrew.

Some searching has yielded a few instances where Olivenberg was used to denote the Mount of Olives, such as this publication from 1828, this German itinerary for a 2014 trip for Israel, and in a caption in this article from 2013. However, the Luther Bible uses Ölberg, and it's also the name used by both a Deutsche-Welle documentary and a 2011 Spiegel article. A search for olivenberg jerusalem also gives far fewer results than ölberg jerusalem on Google.

Where does the name Ölberg come from? Is Olivenberg indeed much less common?

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    I never thought that Ölberg would be a mountain of oil because it's a fluid. When I hear that word I associate a hill with olives trees on it. But I don't know the cites where Ölberg is actually used. – harper May 16 '16 at 6:02
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    @harper For what it's worth, by "Mount of Oil" I would have assumed some meaning like "the mountain where oil is produced" or something similar. Naturally, however, I'm not sure if this sort of thing would really carry over in German well. – Maroon May 16 '16 at 6:15
  • So we have the same (or at least similar) impression. But this doesn’t suffice as an prove or answer. – harper May 16 '16 at 6:18
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    Compare also "Weinberg" (vineyard). – Klaus Draeger May 16 '16 at 13:34
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    in french it is"mont des oliviers" which translates to "mont of olives trees" so it is slightly different. I note that in german confused between a biological thing and the general category is common. For instance with "kraüter tee" which designate herbal infusions, which actually do not contain tea. – Olivvv May 17 '16 at 12:09
up vote 16 down vote accepted

The German Ölberg is a gravely wrong translation of the Greek name for the Mount of Olives ὄρος τῶν ἐλαιῶν (oros ton elaion). The Greek version is absolutely unambiguous when spoken, or written with accents. An ambiguity arises when using capital letters, as these don't allow for the placement of accents. The small-letter Greek writing system was finalised roughly in the 9th century, hence old Christian writings are bound to use capital letters. Accents where invented before the second century before common era, but not used mandatorily. Still, a native speaker, who had lived in the Mediterranean, could never succumb to such confusion.

When written without accents ΕΛΑΙΩΝ is genitive plural of two lemmata, ἐλαία and ἔλαιον - thus it means both “of olives” and “of oils”. Accents are crucial to all varieties of Greek, old or modern, but are usually omitted in the old, capitalised form of writing.

enter image description here enter image description here

In the tables above one of the lemmata bears the circumflex accent, called περισπωμένη in Greek! Hence they are clearly different. Perhaps Luther did not notice that, or his Greek was not very good. As the latter seems unlikely, another unlikely theory would be, that he used text in capital letters.

A translation similar to the German is used in Danish, Slovene and Finnish. Bulgarian and Russian simply use a cognate of the Greek word elaion. Most other languages – including Latin, its descendants and English – apparently took the other interpretation or translated directly from Hebrew.

Note that in many languages, words for “oil” (in the culinary sense especially) and “olive” have the same root.

Arabic: زيتون / زيت (zayt / zaytun)
Greek: έλαιο / ελιά Spanish: aceite / aceituna (from Arabic)
Latin: oleum / olea (from Greek)
Maltese: żejt / żebbuġ
Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian: maslo / maslina

So they are very intertwined concepts in the Mediterranean.

Likewise the various Germanic cognates of “oil” are from Latin oleum ‎(“olive oil”), from Ancient Greek ἔλαιον ‎(élaion, “olive oil”).

Later German, English and other languages lost the association of “oil” with olives, or perhaps the association was never so strong - north of the Alps, olives were very exotic in the past, and oil was associated with animal fats not plant fats.

Während bei den Griechen und Römern das Olivenöl bereits in der Antike zum Braten und Verfeinern von Speisen üblich und die Butter nur für medizinische Zwecke eingesetzt wurde, dominierten in der deutschen Küche Butter, Schmalz und Fette noch bis ins frühe 20. Jahrhundert. In einem Bericht über die erste Fischereiausstellung in Wien (September 1902) beschreibt die Zeitschrift Die Woche vor allem französische Fischrezepte mit Olivenöl und klagt über die Speisefett-Versessenheit Zentraleuropas.

See: ἐλαία, ἔλαιον, زيت, זית

The reconstructed proto-Germanic word for grease is smerwą, which yielded German Schmer, English smear and Yiddish שמיר.

Common words for the oil that one should never ever eat in Russian, Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic etc derive from the Old Persian word نفت (naft), cognate with the German scientific term Naphtha a.k.a. Rohbenzin. In fact the etymology of Benzin is also Arabic and interesting.

But nobody is calling the Mount of Olives Schmerhaufen or Benzinspitz.

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    In Hebrew oil (for cooking or lamps) is "שֶׁמֶן" not "זַיִת". It's ,הר הזיתים not השמנים – Robert Israel May 16 '16 at 17:27
  • Re שמן connotations, thanks, updated. Re הר הזיתים, yes, English, Latin etc are a translation of הר הזיתים. – A. M. Bittlingmayer May 17 '16 at 11:40
  • Feel free to just edit directly – A. M. Bittlingmayer May 17 '16 at 11:59
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    Addendum: I doubt that Luther's Greek may have been generally lousy, because great parts of his translation are very good. Theoretically, Luther might have used a bible in capital letters without accents, but I think it unlikely. I am a native speaker of Greek and proficient in many variants of old Greek. Particularly, Bible Greek is very easy for me. I can not imagine how one could think of oil instead of olives in this context. The other user's suggestion about Weinberg might point in the right direction. – Ludi Aug 15 '16 at 16:47
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    I took the liberty of adding many small things I found useful and correcting some assessments about Greek. I hope you don't mind. – Ludi Aug 15 '16 at 17:19

Considering that another name for Olivenbaum is Ölbaum and the biological family is Ölbaumgewächse (Oleaceae), Ölberg with the meaning of “mountain of olive trees” makes sense to me.

Ölberg has nothing to do with (olive) oil, but with the tree itself.

As you can see from your examples, Öl is a more archaic usage. The substance known as "oil" was originally only derived from olives (which was constrained to the Mediterranean area in those days). Only later was it also applied to other fluids like what would be derived from wool, petroleum, sunflower seeds, etc.

So in the archaic usage, Öl would be pretty much synonymous with Oliven(baum). Keep in mind that language would often not strictly be literal, so it would not be strange to refer to a mountain where oil is produced, instead of the mountain where olive trees are grown. (This synonymous meaning goes back much further, into the latin, greek and possibly cretan).

From http://www.dictionary.com/browse/oil:

Word Origin and History for oil

n.

late 12c., "olive oil," from Anglo-French and Old North French olie, from Old French oile, uile "oil" (12c., Modern French huile), from Latin oleum "oil, olive oil" (source of Spanish, Italian olio), from Greek elaion "olive tree," from elaia (see olive ). Old English æle, Dutch olie, German Öl, etc. all are from Latin. It meant "olive oil" exclusively till c.1300, when meaning began to be extended to any fatty, greasy substance. Use for "petroleum" first recorded 1520s, but not common until 19c. The artist's oils (1660s), short for oil-color (1530s), are paints made by grinding pigment in oil.

For interest also consider e.g. Judges 9 verse 9.

I cannot prove the following, but would assume it makes sense.

The Lutherian bible was translated into German 1545 - Most probably no one in the intended audience would have had an idea what an "Olive" was supposed to be or would ever see one in his entire life (perhaps not even Luther himself).

Everyone, however, knew what "Öl" was (Albeit not made from olives).

Martin Luther intended to produce a text accessible and readable by everyone, so had to choose a wording that made sense to that audience.

An ngrams chart makes it pretty clear that "Olivenberg" never has been very popular:

enter image description here

Note Luther also used "Ölzweig" in the Noah story and not "Olivenzweig". The tree itself is called "Ölbaum" and the olive "Ölfrucht". So, absolutely nothing wrong here.

The Latin olivum means "olive oil" if I recall right - the tree is olea - You could thus even consider "Olivenberg" a wrong translation at Lutherian times, today "Olivenberg" would probably be understood as a large heap of olive fruit - Not the right thing either.

  • The German word Öl was derived from the Latin oleum, so it's natural to use it as its translation. – reinierpost May 17 '16 at 10:44

In fact, I never heard of or read Olivenberg.

I guess, that much of your bewilderment is based on an assumed relation to mineral oil. A German Enyclopedia from 1894 states:

Ölberg, im Alten und Neuen Testament, offenbar wegen seiner damals zahlreichen Ölbäume,...

translated:

in the Old and New Testament, apparently due to its then numerous olive trees (German:Ölbäume)

Note, that Ölbaum is a significantly shorter synonym to Olivenbaum, and that the translations seems to derive directly from botanic olea europaea.

  • I'd thought of olive oil (since that seemed like the main way I could get a connection to "olives"), but still found it strange (since one would imagine that languages would separate "olive oil" and "olives"). – Maroon May 15 '16 at 21:30
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    see @tofro's answer: the distiction is there. Just that in (bible) German the fruit has the longer name: olive = Ölfrucht, and Öl in biblical context means olive oil. In everyday German you need to qualify that you mean olive oil - just Öl in food context means "sunflower or rape seed oil - I don't care which". It's like Nussbaum (literally nut tree) means a walnut tree, just like you're expected to know which type of nut a nut tree produces, you're expected to know which type of oil one gets from the Ölbaum (Olivenöl, not Baumöl). – cbeleites May 16 '16 at 16:17

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